On sexual abuse and ‘complementarian’ myths

A response to John Piper’s podcast/article: ‘Sex-abuse allegations and the Egalitarian Myth’

How do you disagree with someone well? 

This is a puzzle, isn’t it? Today I happened across an article from the Desiring God, ‘Ask Pastor John’ section. To be quite honest, reading it left me feeling pretty cross, and I’ve got some opinions, which I’m happy to share with you. 

But, it’s helpful to say this first. 

I do disagree with John Piper on this subject. In fact I disagree with him on most of his views on what he believes the Bible teaches on the roles of men and women. However, because of Jesus, there are many more, much more important things that we hold in common. John Piper is my brother in the Lord, and so I’m hoping and praying that whilst I say what I’m about to say, I’m able to do so in a way that doesn’t undermine that. 

If you think I haven’t done that well, please let me know.


So. Here’s the background:

In November, Piper wrote an article entitled, ‘Do men owe women a special kind of care?’. Today, as a follow-up to that, and in light of the recent media attention on the topic of sexual violence and harassment of women, he has produced a podcast/article answer: ‘Sex-abuse allegations and the Egalitarian Myth’

What follows is a (hopefully fair) summary of Piper’s argument, and some reasons why I think he’s wrong.

The second article is, as I mentioned, part of the ‘Ask Pastor John’ section of the Desiring God website, where he, unsurprisingly, answers questions that have been addressed to him. The question of today, was less of a question and more of an invitation for him to comment on the various sex-abuse scandals that have hit the headlines in the last few weeks and months (Harvey Weinstein, Roy Moore and Kevin Spacey all get mentioned, amongst others).

Here’s a quote:

“It seems like what makes these stories especially tragic, Pastor John, is not merely that these are powerful men who took advantage of less-powerful women. It’s especially tragic because, as men, they are called by God to demonstrate sacrificial care for women beyond what women are called to offer men.” (emphasis mine)

It’s this section of the question, and Piper’s response, that first got my left eye twitching (a sure sign of approaching rage). Let’s call it ‘objection one’.

I am a complementarian, although I’m increasingly disinclined to use the term because of the baggage that seems to go along with the word, as well as the fact that it is so broad a term, with such a wide-range of people claiming it, that it has become somewhat meaningless. If you’re unfamiliar with the terminology, allow me to explain.

Here’s what Wikipedia has to say:

Complementarianism is a theological view held by some in Christianity …that men and women have different but complementary roles and responsibilities in marriage, family life, religious leadership, and elsewhere… For some Christians whose complementarian view is biblically-prescribed, these separate roles preclude women from specific functions of ministry within the community. Though women may be precluded from certain roles and ministries they are held to be equal in moral value and of equal status. The phrase used to describe this is ‘Ontologically equal, Functionally different’.

I would offer you a dictionary definition if I could, but the Oxford Dictionary doesn’t acknowledge it as being a real word. Make of that what you will.

Equal but different is key for me. Equal in status, moral value, cognitive ability, but different in function and role. I do think this is important. I think the difference is good, and I think it has implications for all sorts of things that are important, but I don’t think difference means either better or worse, and my frustration with Piper’s version of complementarianism is that he, I think unintentionally, manages to make being female inferior in a whole bunch of different ways.

In the original article Piper argued against any sense of a mutuality when it comes to respect and honour between men and women:

“God requires more of men in relation to women than he does women in relation to men. God requires that men feel a peculiar responsibility for protecting and caring for women.”

More, peculiar, beyond – it turns it into an unnecessary competition – can it not be enough to say we are to honour, respect and care for one another? Perhaps that might look different depending on whether we are men or women, but I’m not totally convinced that it does. Piper uses some verses from Ephesians 5 as his evidence, and yet those verses are speaking particularly to married people. Let’s not forget the verse that comes immediately before:

Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.

That’s the ultimate call, surely? For all of us to respect, honour and submit to one another, regardless of who we are – because we’re all one in Christ. Paul then goes on to work out what that particularly looks like in a marriage, because of the uniqueness of finite, human marriage being designed to demonstrate something of the eternal, divine marriage between Christ and the Church.

I think we get ourselves in all sorts of pickles when we try to make out like these verses are primarily about human relationships, rather than about the way we as the Church relate to the Christ. And I think we get in even more of a pickle when we try to apply instructions about marriage to outside of that context.

Here’s what Piper has to say:

There is nothing like the leadership of Jesus and protection of Jesus and provision and cherishing and nourishing of Jesus that are laid on the man as a man — not because he’s more competent, but because he’s a man.

And yet, in the context of Ephesians, it’s not the ‘man’ who this burden of being like Christ is laid. It’s the husband. And those two things are not interchangeable.

A husband and wife are called on to relate to one another in a particular way, in order to demonstrate something of the way that church and the Lord Jesus relate to one another.  A husband and wife. Not all men and all women.

Piper goes on to argue:

This special burden put on man — this special responsibility toward women for honor and care and protection — does not evaporate when he walks out the door of his home. It’s not as though it were a matter of geography or a matter of marriage alone. Manhood does not cease to be manhood outside the home.

And yet, if those verses that he’s using are related particularly to a husband’s responsibility towards his wife, then it’s not a case of manhood, so much as it a case of husbandhood.

This fictional man is not my husband. He is not required to love me as he loves his wife. And I am not called to submit to him as a husband. To do so would be inappropriate.

How are we to relate to one another? The same way that we relate to any other Christian brother, or sister – submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.

To try and read instructions to husbands and wives and apply them beyond that is to attempt to be more biblical than the Bible, and ends up with you writing articles forbidding women from becoming police officers.

Piper moves on to use a wee bit of 1 Peter to continue his argument:

Likewise, husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honour to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life.

Note that Piper does acknowledge that in some ways women are stronger than men, whilst in other ways men are stronger than men. So the question we have to ask is, what is Peter talking about when he calls wives the ‘weaker partner’ or ‘vessel’? If it’s merely about physical strength, then what about a marriage where the woman happens to be physically stronger than her husband? Do the verses no longer apply?

I’d argue not. I think when Peter talks about the wife being the weaker partner he is referring instead to the cultural and societal situation of the time, which very much placed women as weaker than men and awarded them very few political or legal rights. In that context, Christian men are being told to behave differently, to treat their wives not as chattel or inferior beings, but as equal humans, with the dignity that comes from being made in the image of good God, and of being made a new creature in Christ.

Whilst some things have changed in the last couple of thousand years, there is still a problem in many cultures and societies across the world, which means that women are still weaker. In this society women are free to vote, to hold political office, to own property, to have rights to their own children, to consent to marriage, to travel out of the country alone, to have an education, and to give evidence in a court of law (some rights that have been denied to women previously in Britain, and some which are still being denied to women around the world today).

And yet, women in this society are still subjected to harassment and violence at work, at home, at university, on public transport, on the internet, and just walking down the street. And, news flash, this is not a modern phenomenon.

And this (let’s call it objection 2) is where Piper’s recent article really set me off, because he blamed the recent media furore over Harvey Weinstein, Roy Moore, etc, on the way that egalitarianism has impacted society.


Here’s the thing. Sexual abuse and harassment of women is not something that was invented in the last 50 years. It has been going on for a really long time. If you’d like some ancient evidence of women being abused by powerful men then I can recommend a few texts, you may know them as Genesis 34, Judges 19, 2 Samuel 11, and 2 Samuel 13.

In the last six months or so sexual violence, abuse and harassment has come to the forefront of many conversations in the media. The #metoo movement has been part of that shift in attention, as well as the fact that ‘celebrities’ have been caught up in the scandals (as victims as well as perpetrators). Aside from the obvious disgust in reading the myriad stories that have been shared, there have been two other things that have set off my feminist fury:

  1. The ridiculous notion that this is a new thing, or that women have been silent on the issue up until now.

Here are a few tweets that appeared in the aftermath of some of the #metoo publicity towards the end of last year.


Note the disgust, but also the surprise. And the response of a women to the original tweet essentially saying: we’ve been saying this for years, how come you weren’t listening?metoo3

A couple of years ago, when the Everyday Sexism project started I remember being simultaneously furious and relieved, as I read through tweet after tweet of horror stories. These were not surprising stories, these were things that I had experienced too, and finally having so many people share their own stories was liberating. And to be able to show a Twitter feed to male friends and colleagues and give them a glimpse of the scope of the problem was exceedingly helpful. One story might not seem like a big deal. Hundreds of stories demonstrate something of the extent of the problem.

The idea that this is a new or modern issue is laughable. And if there’s any truth at all to it, it’s this: perhaps there are certain spheres of society where women weren’t being harassed 100 or 200 years ago, but only because there weren’t any women present in those spheres to be harassed.

If the solution to keeping women safe is to lock them away, rather than demanding that the perpetrators stop being sexual predators then we have a problem.

2. The even more ridiculous notion that this has been caused by the sexual revolution and/or egalitarianism.

Screen Shot 2018-03-19 at 12.09.30

The idea that rape doesn’t exist within marriage, or that it didn’t exist 60 years ago, is nonsensical. Again, allow me to refer you to the Old Testament.

Rape, sexual violence, sexual abuse, harassment of women, and objecting to the presence of women in the public sphere are not new inventions. They are not a result of the sexual revolution. And they are not caused by a theological viewpoint that is arguing for the equality of men and women.

I am not an egalitarian, and I have reasons for that. But, I will not put up with rhetoric that wants to lay the blame for the mistreatment of women at their feet. It’s just not true.

Let’s let lay the blame where it belongs: sinful, denial of the truth of the fact that women, as well as men were made in the image of a good God, who gives dignity and value to all people, regardless of the body parts that they’re equipped with or the chromosomes they possess.

In summary: not having it.

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  • Reply Fiona Parker March 19, 2018 at 4:00 pm

    Hello and YES. Thank you so much for this very helpful piece Ellie.

    • Reply Ellidh March 19, 2018 at 4:10 pm


  • Reply Rob Cook March 19, 2018 at 10:13 pm

    I suppose the traditional view was that a husband had particular responsibilities for his wife, but for an unmarried woman that responsibility still rested with her father. I will not insist on my patriarchal rights here, (I’m in enough trouble as it is!) but if any ‘fictional man’ thinks that submission is for you to offer to him, then feel free to refer him to me for a word or two of advice. Though I have every confidence that you can tell him yourself!

    • Reply Ellidh March 20, 2018 at 12:07 pm

      Thanks, Pops. You’re my favourite patriarch!

  • Reply Sam Keyes May 6, 2019 at 9:06 am

    Thought-provoking reflections. Seems to me one big risk for those trying to frame male / female responsibilities to each other outside the marriage context in this gendered way is that it grounds these responsibility in our ontology, rather than, as you helpfully point out, in fixing our eyes on Christ and all that flows from our union in Him.

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